By Julie Shapiro
LOWER MANHATTAN — Ever since Congress passed the 9/11 health bill last month — and especially since President Obama signed it into law on Sunday — John Feal’s phone has been ringing off the hook.
"A lot of 9/11 responders are asking me questions," said Feal, who started the FealGood Foundation for sick 9/11 workers after he lost part of his left foot at Ground Zero.
First responders from around the country want to know what the new law will mean for them, Feal said. They also want to know if they should do anything to make sure they are eligible for the new benefits.
For now, Feal’s advice is simple: Sit tight.
The $4.3 billion James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act doesn’t go into effect until the summer, so those who are sick do not need to rush to fill out any paperwork, Feal said.
The Obama Administration still has to appoint someone, called a "special master," to oversee the law’s $2.8 billion Victim Compensation Fund, and that special master will develop regulations or how to disperse the money by the beginning of July. Anyone who worked or volunteered at the World Trade Center site between Sept. 11, 2001 and July 31, 2002 will be eligible to apply then.
Those who already received money from previous settlements with the city, the Port Authority or private companies can still apply to receive more money from the new Victim Compensation Fund. However, those who received money from the previous iteration of the federal Victim Compensation Fund several years ago are not eligible to reapply.
Feal said that exclusion is one of the biggest problems with the new law, and he is hoping it’s not too late to get it changed. He said he knows many people who had mild illnesses during the first round of compensation and received a small amount of money but have since contracted diseases like cancer or pulmonary fibrosis and deserve more.
"I'm going to be a staunch advocate on that," Feal said. "I'm going to fight that tooth and nail."
Feal also wants to see cancer added to the list of 9/11-related illnesses covered by the fund. Compensation is now mostly limited to respiratory and psychological conditions.
A Congressional source said the federal government could add new illnesses to the list of those that are covered, as long as research shows the illnesses are connected to the exposure to toxins at Ground Zero.
But the source said it was unlikely that those who already received money from the previous Victim Compensation Fund would be allowed to apply for more, as Feal hopes.
In addition to reopening the Victim Compensation Fund, the new law also provides $1.5 billion for five years of medical monitoring and treatment for first responders and lower Manhattan residents, students and office workers. The money will allow the 9/11 health clinics that are already operating in the city to serve even more people and do more outreach. Current patients will not notice any changes.
The biggest decision first responders are faced with now is whether to hire a lawyer. Even before Obama signed the bill, lawyers were already circling the responder community, hoping to sign up new clients and tap into the Victim Compensation Fund.
Feal is advising sick first responders not to sign any agreements with lawyers yet. He is meeting with a group of lawyers later this month and hopes to find some who are willing to accept either a flat-rate fee or a fee that is less than the 10 percent maximum set by the law.
Feal said he will then either hold a seminar where recovery workers can meet prospective lawyers or he will release a list of those he deems to have the first responders’ best interests in mind.
"We’re approaching this very carefully," Feal said. "We’re not going to rush, because look: This is people’s lives we’re dealing with."
First responders with questions about the 9/11 health law can contact the FealGood Foundation at Feal13@aol.com.